How does Christian pacifism work? [Questioning faith #15]

Ted Grimsrud—January 29, 2023

My definition of pacifism starts with the conviction that no belief or commitment or loyalty matters more than loving all others. It follows from such a conviction that participating in or preparing for or supporting warfare would never be acceptable. A key element, then, of this kind of conviction is that it requires a break from the widely held assumption that we should allow our nation to decide for us when war is okay. This assumption I call the “blank check”—the willingness (generally simply assumed more than self-consciously chosen) to do what our nation calls upon us to do, to give it—in effect—a blank check.

I have studied the responses American citizens had to their nation’s all-in call for fighting World War II. Only a tiny handful refused to take up arms, and I would say that almost universally those “conscientious objectors” shared a sense of loyalty to some higher moral conviction than accepting the blank check—and those who weren’t COs did not share that loyalty. Those who went to war did accept that their highest loyalty was owed to their nation.

If I add the modifier “Christian” to the term pacifism, the basic definition remains the same, but it adds the source of the conviction about the centrality of love. “Christian pacifism,” I would say, is the conviction that loving others is our never to be subordinated moral commitment, and this is due to the message of Jesus. Christians who aspire to have love be their central moral conviction (that is, “Christian pacifists”) look especially to Jesus’s teaching that love of God and neighbor is the heart of God’s will for human beings.

Why self-consciousness about pacifism matters

The two main inter-related reasons for why it is so important actually to understand Christian pacifism are: (1) in the long history of Christianity, hardly any Christian groups have in fact been committed to pacifism despite it being so central to Jesus’s message and (2) in the long history of human civilization hardly any Christians seem to have seriously questioned the validity of giving the state a blank check when it comes to warfare despite war being so obviously a violation of Jesus’s core message.

Continue reading “How does Christian pacifism work? [Questioning faith #15]”

Did Jesus (and the early Christians) actually expect him to return soon? [Questioning faith #13]

Ted Grimsrud—December 23, 2022

Many New Testament scholars and others influenced by them assert that Jesus (and, following him, other New Testament writers such as Paul and the writer of Revelation) believed that he would return within a relatively short time after his death. This return would be tied with an end to history and the inauguration of a new heaven and new earth.

The people who advocate this view go on to point out that Jesus (and the others) were obviously wrong. Christianity thus quickly evolved to be a more conservative, more doctrine-oriented—and less radical-ethics-oriented—religion. Christians linked themselves with political structures (e.g., the Roman Empire) that would allow them to sustain their structures so long as Christians would contribute to the wellbeing of the political status quo. Over time, various small renewal movements would arise that would hearken back to the radical message of Jesus (and, in some interpretations, of Paul and Revelation). These movements could be dismissed because they were basing their visions on a message from Jesus that was meant for the short time between his life and his return. That message was not meant for the long haul of coming generations who were tasked with sustaining the faith over a much, much longer period of time than Jesus had anticipated. This work of sustaining the faith, thus, in the real world, required accommodation to the political systems of the world.

But is this true?

I have the impression that many of the people who accept the idea that Jesus (and the others) expected a soon end of history have not scrutinized the evidence very carefully. The first thing that I note is how ambiguous and peripheral most of the references are that seem to voice such an expression. We don’t have a clear, straightforward statement that Jesus will return soon. We do have various statements that seem to allude to something major happening in the near future without explaining what that would be and what would be the consequences. And there are more vague statements of hope about God’s victory to come. How should these be understood?

It could be that they are indeed predicting a soon end to human history and the inauguration of a new age of pure salvation. But such a predication does not have support in the overall message of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament that emphasizes the call to faithful living in a broken world. A key value in the New Testament is perseverance, the sense that followers of Jesus have a long haul ahead of them that will require strength, a commitment to resist the ways of the world, and an acceptance of the likelihood of suffering for the sake of their faith.

Continue reading “Did Jesus (and the early Christians) actually expect him to return soon? [Questioning faith #13]”

What are Christians saved from? [Questioning faith #11]

Ted Grimsrud—December 15, 2022

“Salvation” is one of those Christian words that we use a great deal but aren’t always clear about what we mean by it. In my recent posts, I have focused on how we might find salvation without really addressing what it is. One way to work at understanding what salvation is is to reflect on what we are saved from. Other words in the Bible that seem to be rough synonyms with salvation include “liberation,” “redemption,” and “ransom.” All of these seem to have in mind being delivered or freed from something. What are we saved from?

The old story

My first encounter with Christianity came when I joined a Baptist church when I was 17 years old. The main message about salvation I heard was that, in reality, we are saved from God. More specifically, we are saved from God’s judgment, God’s punitive justice, God’s wrath. Or, we could say, we are saved from hell, from eternal torment in separation from God. The means to gain this salvation was very narrow and particular. We must accept Jesus as our personal savior, which means to believe in the efficacy of his sacrificial crucifixion on my behalf, a death he took upon himself in order to receive, as our substitute, the punishment that we deserve.

Because I did not grow up with this theology and had a much more positive sense of my place in the world, that salvation story did not scare me in the way that it has so many other people. I didn’t have the deep-seated anxiety about whether I was okay or not that many lifelong Christians seem to have. Despite not feeling that anxiety, I did try to believe that story—though I was always uneasy about it—until a few years into my journey when I began to learn of another way to read and apply the story.

I won’t go into all the problems here with the kind of atonement theology I was taught. I’ll just note that from the beginning I sensed that the story of Jesus and his love was not fully compatible with belief in an angry and punitive God. Though I don’t remember thinking of the issue in these terms, I would say now that part of my problem with what I was taught was that my sense of the human problem was not that God was displeased with us so much as that too many human beings gave allegiance to oppressive and hurtful ideologies and institutions.

In retrospect, I think it is important to remember that the period in my life that I became a Christian, left home for college, and initially worked out my theology coincided with the final years of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal that drove President Richard Nixon from office. I became much more interested in social issues during this time and discovered and embraced Christian pacifism. I was eager for a theology that would help me make sense of the world I was living in and that would empower peaceable social ethics. I realized the salvation story I had been told wasn’t doing that. The key for me came when I realized that Jesus himself talked about his cross as a model for his followers, not as a necessary sacrifice to satisfy God’s punitive justice. How do we best understand salvation in light of Jesus’s cross as a model?

Continue reading “What are Christians saved from? [Questioning faith #11]”

Is Jesus God? [Questioning faith #9]

Ted Grimsrud—December 8, 2022

Many years ago, I had a friend who was probably the most principled person I have ever known. As a young college professor, he was denied tenure in large part because he sided with a student in a dispute with one of the school’s high administrators. My friend and his family then moved to a new town on the other side of the country.

A few years later, he was offered a teaching job at another college. However, he didn’t take the job because he could not sign the school’s doctrinal statement. The school dean argued with my friend—“Nobody takes this statement seriously. Just sign it; we don’t care if you agree with it or not.” What was the issue? The divinity of Jesus Christ. The doctrinal statement said something to the effect that “we believe Jesus Christ is God Incarnate.”

Now, my friend was hardly a liberal. He was kind of a biblical literalist, and he didn’t think the Bible itself taught that Jesus is God. He didn’t give much weight to the later creeds and confessions that make that affirmation. At that point in my life, I hadn’t really questioned the standard “orthodox” view, but my friend’s costly commitment to his belief system impressed me. So, I started thinking about this question, “is Jesus God?” I still haven’t figured it all out, though.

What’s the question?

One of the difficulties I have is that I can’t quite figure out what the statement “Jesus is God” actually means. It seems a bit like saying that in the 4th quarter of a close basketball game, Steph Curry is a cold-blooded killer. You have a sense of what the statement means, but it’s a metaphor. A person playing basketball is not in any literal sense a killer. But Curry can be like a cold-blooded killer when he ignores the pressure and makes a crucial shot that leads to his opponent’s defeat.

Continue reading “Is Jesus God? [Questioning faith #9]”

Why did Christianity move so far away from the message of Jesus? [Questioning faith #7]

Ted Grimsrud—November 21, 2022

From the time I made a commitment to Christian pacifism in the mid-1970s, I have believed that Jesus and the Bible as a whole support that commitment. In the years since, I have learned a lot more about how this “support” is complicated and at time ambiguous. However, I still believe that the general message of the Bible and more clearly the message of Jesus obviously point toward peace, compassion, care for the vulnerable, and what we now refer to as restorative justice—even if some may quibble about whether it explicitly teaches pacifism.

A few years after my turn toward peaceable Christianity, my wife Kathleen and I spent a year at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. We gained a terrific foundation there of biblical peace theology, especially from Old Testament professor Millard Lind and New Testament professor Willard Swartley. I have preached through much of the Bible in the 40 years since attending AMBS, each year during my 20-year teaching career at Eastern Mennonite University I taught a class called “Biblical Theology of Peace and Justice,” and I have written several books on peace based on the Bible. I feel quite established in my sense that the Bible (especially, but not only, Jesus) gives us a strong message of peace.

The difference between the Bible and Christian practice

So, that leads to the obvious question. What happened to Christianity? The history of Christianity is a history full of wars and militarism, conquest and domination, crusades and the embrace of empire. One statistical piece of evidence comes from the United States. In 1940, after several years of intense lobbying by peace advocates, the legislation passed to begin a military draft included allowance for pacifists to be exempt from joining the military. So, this proved to be kind of a test case.

From my analysis, I would estimate that about one out of 1,000 American Christians chose the conscientious objector route. For the vast majority of the young men who were drafted, the option to be a CO—and the sense that Jesus would support such a stance—seemingly never even entered the realm of possibility. Not only have Christians around the world almost always supported their nations’ wars, even when they would be fighting other Christians, it actually seems to be the case at least in the United States that Christians are more likely than non-Christians to support wars and preparation for wars. It doesn’t seem farfetched to call Christianity a pro-war religion—the opposite of Jesus’s message.

So, again, the question: Why the transformation? This is a question that has interested me for a long time, but I have never devoted serious attention to it. I have come up with a preliminary list, though, of what seem to be key elements of the evolution away from Jesus’s teaching.

Continue reading “Why did Christianity move so far away from the message of Jesus? [Questioning faith #7]”

In what sense is Jesus our “savior”? [Questioning faith #3]

Ted Grimsrud—November 7, 2022

Quite a few Christians, it seems, assume that there is a clear demarcation between those who are Christians and those who are not. They might differ on how they describe the line of demarcation, but for many it has to do with whether a person trusts in Jesus as one’s savior or not. That is certainly what I was taught when I started going to church. I don’t find that a helpful notion anymore.

What I was taught about salvation

It took a while after my age 17 conversion for me to figure out what I was actually being taught about Jesus as savior. As I look back now all these years later, I find it remarkable that something that was such a pillar of faith would be so little explained. But this is how I would now reconstruct my first church’s understanding of Jesus as savior.

The key first step would be to assert that human beings are inherently sinful—each one of us. We are born that way. And because we are sinful, we exist in alienation from God. Ultimately, if something does not happen, we will be condemned to spend eternity in hell. So, making “something happen” is extremely important. We can be assured that God wants this “something” to happen, that God has provided a way for this alienation to be overcome.

This way (and it is the only way) is for us to accept Jesus as our personal savior, to recognize that we are sinful and deserve condemnation, and to recognize that Jesus’s death on our behalf has made is possible for us to find reconciliation with our holy God and thus to escape our certain condemnation. What is rarely explained, though, is how this works. How does Jesus’s death make our salvation possible?

Continue reading In what sense is Jesus our “savior”? [Questioning faith #3]

Questioning faith: Blogging through key convictions [Questioning faith #1]

Ted Grimsrud—November 2, 2022

I will be posting a series of short essays where I will reflect on some of the main questions I have had about the world I live in and Christian faith’s relationship to it. These questions indeed are concerned with “the faith”—that is, the Christianity I have been immersed in for my entire adult life. They reflect a great deal of the doubt and critical stance I now have toward my received Christianity. So, they are about “questioning the faith.” Ultimately, though, my reflections will be more affirmative than simply challenging things. These questions, and my reflections on them, my attempts to answer them, are expressions of a faith that sees questioning as a core component. That is, I will present the fruit of living with a “questioning faith.” The reflections are from a standpoint of a person with faith. Going back to when I was 17 years old, I have never actually questioned whether to have faith or not; it is always about the shape of that faith.  

Somehow, for my entire life I have always loved to ask questions, to try to understand. My initial attraction to Christianity arose out a desire to understand life, to try to find the truth. I have come to think of “understanding” and “truth” quite differently than I did when I was a teen-ager. Still, that quest I embarked on over 50 years ago remains at the center of my life. I expect my forthcoming blog posts to be elements of the ongoing journey.

Liberated by Francis Schaeffer

A turning point in my faith—and my life—came when I was 21 years old. At that moment (Summer 1975), I started attending a new church. I still accepted most of what I had been taught in the theologically very conservative Baptist church I had joined after my conversion four years earlier. In my new church, I almost immediately joined a book study group engaging Francis Schaeffer, an American living in Europe who was becoming known as “the evangelist for intellectuals.” Like many others, I found Schaeffer to be a formative influence in moving away from fundamentalism.

In my case, I rather quickly moved past Schaeffer and have never really stopped moving. As I learned later, Schaffer had been deeply immersed in the world of fundamentalism during the heyday of the famous fundamentalist/modernist conflicts that were probably their most bitter and consequential in Schaeffer’s own Presbyterian tradition. He ultimately became a victim of the battle himself and moved to Europe in part to separate himself from the faith-traumatizing struggles. But he never actually moved much in his own theology and ended his life as a key player in the emergence of the politically focused Christian Right in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Continue reading Questioning faith: Blogging through key convictions [Questioning faith #1]

The war of the lamb: A response to Jason Porterfield’s Fight Like Jesus

Ted Grimsrud—June 14, 2022

Jesus has gotten sidelined in many ways, which is one of the main reasons why the record of Christianity is so poor when it comes to witnessing to the world in a healing manner. One kind of sidelining goes back to the several centuries after Jesus when church doctrine evolved to exclude the life and teaching of Jesus from core creeds and confessions, moving from Jesus’s miraculous birth to his death and resurrection with scarcely a glance at what Jesus said and did. Another kind of sidelining has been what we could call the sentimentalizing and devotionalizing of the events of Jesus’s life in a way that minimize their social and political elements.

Jason Porterfield’s new book, Fight Like Jesus: How Jesus Waged Peace throughout Holy Week (Herald Press, 2022) initially may give the impression of fitting in this second category as a devotional treatment of the last week of Jesus’s life. Happily, though, Fight Like Jesus ends up being a challenging account of ways that the events of Jesus’s final days actually have powerful socially transformative significance. As such, its relevance extends much further than simply a spiritually uplifting set of meditations that would mainly be of interest just during the Easter season. Indeed, this book would be a valuable resource for any Christians seeking to understand better the practical relevance of Jesus’s life and teaching for all peacemaking work the year around.

Giving a close reading to the stories from Jesus’s final week, Porterfield shows how those several days serve as a kind of microcosm that help us better understand Jesus’s overall peacemaking agenda. The book is both practical and theologically perceptive. The Jesus that is presented here was creative, courageous, confrontive, and constructive in his response to the deadly resistance he faced due to his activist peaceable ministry.

Continue reading “The war of the lamb: A response to Jason Porterfield’s Fight Like Jesus

New Book—To Follow the Lamb: A Peaceable Reading of the Book of Revelation

I am happy to announce the publication of my most recent book: To Follow the Lamb: A Peaceable Reading of the Book of Revelation (Cascade Books, 2022), ix + 278pp.

To Follow the Lamb is a commentary of the entire book of Revelation that places a special emphasis on the peace message of Revelation. Revelation is not a book that portrays a violent, vengeful God but rather than shows God to be most profoundly revealed in the gracious Lamb. The key to reading Revelation is to take seriously the opening words of the Book that tell us it is a”revelation of Jesus Christ.”

Revelation is an exhortation to discipleship—follow the Lamb wherever he goes! It offers a sharp critique of the world’s empires and a sharp critique of how people of faith all too easily find ways to be comfortable within the empires. Revelation portrays God as merciful and peaceable—but engaged in a battle against the spiritual powers of evil that energize the nations’ domination systems.This battle, though, is fought with the weapons of love, not worldly violent weapons.

Available online from:

Amazon (the Kindle version is only $9.99)

Wipf and Stock Publishers

Both sites have previews that show the first part of the book.

Also available at: Bookshop.org

Endorsements:

“Ted Grimsrud is a worthy and capable guide through the often misread and confusing images laid out by John of Patmos to the churches of Roman Asia. Anyone who has ever wondered how to make sense of this powerful narrative will find a great companion in To Follow the Lamb. Go form a study group and dig in!”—WES HOWARD-BROOK, Seattle University, author of Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now

“In this important book, Ted Grimsrud clears away decades of misunderstanding and misuse to reveal the beauty and power of the Apocalypse. Writing with deep insight and lucid prose, Grimsrud forcefully challenges violent interpretations of Revelation and fixes our gaze on the nonviolent Jesus. A treasure trove for peacemakers and justice seekers, To Follow the Lamb is accessible, relevant, and sorely needed. Guaranteed to deepen your appreciation of Revelation—I highly recommend it!”—ERIC SEIBERT, Messiah University, author of Disarming the Church: Why Christians Must Forsake Violence to Follow Jesus and Change the World

“In the midst of the sometimes violent rhetoric of Revelation, Grimsrud makes abundantly clear that Revelation features the nonviolent victory by the slain and resurrected Lamb, who reveals a nonviolent God, over the powers of evil, represented by the Roman empire. One of the most valuable contributions of this comprehensive theological analysis of Revelation is how it applies the book’s nonviolent resistance to empire to our call to challenge the American empire.”—J. DENNY WEAVER, Bluffton University, author of God Without Violence

More posts on Peaceable Revelation

The politics of Paul and the way of Jesus, part 1 [Peaceable Romans #6]

Ted Grimsrud—February 18, 2022

Christians have tended to hold Jesus and Paul in tension. On the one side, Christians of a more liberal persuasion have tended to take their cues from Jesus and see Paul as a supporter of the status quo. Others wouldn’t so much say there is a tension as assume (often without realizing it) that Jesus is not particularly relevant for their social ethics. His message is often seen to focus on personal ethics and the ideals of our future in heaven. For such conservatives, Paul teaches us more relevant political principles, especially about obeying the governing authorities and respecting the state’s police function.

Reasons not to dismiss Paul’s politics

Now, I definitely am on the Jesus-as-central side. Some years ago, I read a wide variety of Christian thinkers who reject pacifism. I was struck with how every single one of them—from evangelicals to Catholics to theological liberals—cited Romans 13 as a key biblical text that supported their anti-pacifist stance. In face of that consensus, I can understand why a more peace-oriented Christian might want to be done with Paul.

However, I don’t think it’s a good idea to take the easy way out with Paul. First of all, I believe that the pro-war reading of Romans 13 is a bad interpretation. If we read those verses carefully, I believe we will realize that they do not support the standard account—even if that standard account is long-lived and widely affirmed. Just on the grounds of accuracy, then, Paul should not be seen as the advocate par excellence of Christian submission to the state.

Second, the message of the Bible’s story as a whole contradicts the assumption that Christians should issue the state a moral blank check and simply “submit to the state.” Christians generally have practiced that kind of submission going back to Augustine. But such an embrace was highly ironic (and tragic) given the strong biblical emphasis in opposition to empires going back to the story of the exodus. Especially striking is how Augustine give the Roman Empire the moral authority to discern when to involve Christians in war. This flies in the face of the New Testament: That same Roman Empire executed Jesus and that same Roman Empire was linked with Satan in the book of Revelation. So, it is strange that a short, cryptic passage from Paul’s writing would take precedence over the negative overall biblical message about the state.

Third, when we simply grant validity to the Paul-as-pro-submission-to-the-state position without argument we lose the main avenue for possibly persuading Christians not to grant such a blank check. This avenue is to ground one’s counterargument in the Bible. If we don’t question that interpretation of Romans 13, then the by far most important biblical basis for Christian acceptance of warism will remain in place—and it becomes difficult to imagine an effective way to persuade Christians not to support for the warring state.

So, I think there are good reasons to examine Paul’s writings more closely, with an openness that he might actually turn out to be much closer to Jesus in thought than has normally been recognized. I believe that, together, Jesus and Paul do provide a political perspective that is relevant in our world. Not only relevant, but I would argue that together Jesus and Paul give us essential guidance for creative and transformative political engagement. Continue reading “The politics of Paul and the way of Jesus, part 1 [Peaceable Romans #6]”